Editor's note: Bernard Cornwell's The Pagan Lord is the seventh book in his Saxon Tales series, which started in 2004 with The Last Kingdom. Cornwell recently sent us this essay, in which he examines the spread of Christianity through Europe. It's not the typical Christmas story, but it will be an interesting read for some of our readers.
He was the ‘red ravager’, described as ‘cruel from a child’, a warlord, a rapist, a thief, a murderer and an inveterate enemy of the church. He is also one of our greatest heroes, so how did King Arthur turn from being a villain into a shining exemplar of Christian chivalry? The answer is syncretism, the merging of religious beliefs. The early saints’ lives of the Celtic church depicted Arthur as a murderous pagan, but unable to eradicate him from popular legend the church simply recruited him so that instead of searching for Bran’s cauldron he pursues the Holy Grail, and instead of being a persecutor of Christians he becomes their champion.
We live in a world of syncretism. The names of January, March, April, May and June all derive from pagan gods, as do the names of our days. We knock on wood, avoid sitting thirteen to dinner, give presents at Christmas and millions believe their destiny is foretold by the stars. Christianity attempted to eradicate such paganism, yet the old heathen names, traditions and beliefs persist like junk DNA in our cultural genome. How on earth did that happen?
A better question might be why our European ancestors became Christian in the first place. A believer would surely answer that the manifold truth of the religion prevailed over ignorant superstition, but the very persistence of those superstitions suggests that the answer is not quite that simple. A Roman, before the era of Christianity, would have accepted that there were many gods and seen nothing strange in worshipping one, two or even three hundred of them, but he or she would have found it very odd indeed to be told there was only one god, and that this sole deity was, above all things, jealous. So how did an intolerant monotheism win out against the tolerant polytheism that had prevailed for so long?
One answer is that Christianity proved more profitable. There is a telling story about King Edwin of Northumbria, a powerful pagan who ruled what is now northern England and southern Scotland in the 7th Century. He probably worshipped the Norse gods like Thor and Woden, but at some point he encountered a Christian missionary who suggested that success in war and material prosperity would follow a conversion. Edwin put that to the test and god came through with a battlefield triumph and massive amounts of plunder. The king’s chief pagan priest told Edwin that the old gods had never shown such favor and that Northumbria should therefore convert, which it duly did. The story echoes the experience of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who converted because the Christian god gave him victory over Maxentius. It is a common enough tale. In the early 10th Century a Viking named Hrolf took land in what is now Normandy and the treaty confirming his possession insisted he became a Christian. ‘Paris,’ Henry IV of France declared when he changed from Protestant to Catholic, ‘is worth a mass.’ The Duchy of Normandy (which led to the throne of England) proved well worth a mass too.
The early Christian missionaries targeted such rulers. The17th century Treaty of Westphalia brought peace to war-torn Europe with the famous settlement of cuius regio, eius religio which we might translate as ‘his state, his religion’. That, of course, decided between Catholic and Protestant, but it applied in early mediaeval Europe too. Convert the king and the king would put pressure on his subjects to conform. Pope Gregory the Great, the 6th Century pontiff, had no qualms about advising Christian magnates to put up their tenants’ rents if they resisted conversion. There is a deal of self-interest here. Christianity managed to persuade ruler after ruler that material wealth and martial victory would be theirs if they changed religion, but plainly the Christian god was not going to give every ruler victory nor spread the wealth evenly, so a second lure was needed; magic. The Christians disdained to call it magic, though if we saw someone hang their cloak on a sunbeam, as Saint Brigid did, we might be forgiven for suspecting trickery. The early church annals are replete with such miracles; the dead are raised, the sick healed, crops saved, and wonders performed, all proving that Christian magic was far more powerful than pagan sorcery. And persecution of rival sorcery went on well into the seventeenth century, as the people of Salem learned to their discomfort.
Yet the church never entirely defeated paganism. They co-opted it when they could by building their churches on the sites of pagan shrines and transmuting pagan celebrations into Christian feasts. Samhain, the Celtic day of the dead when food and drink were put at the door to avert vengeance, was turned into Halloween’s trick or treat. The Venerable Bede, writing sometime around 700 AD, recorded the spring-time feast celebrating Eostre, a goddess of fertility. Some scholars contend that the name Easter refers to a point of the compass, but Bede, closer than they to the struggle between Christianity and paganism, makes the connection explicit. Easter, Christianity’s most joyous and sacred festival, is named for a pagan goddess, while the giving of Christmas gifts is most likely a holdover from Saturnalia, the Roman midwinter celebration. So people had to be seduced into the new religion by proof that it was more profitable than the old, and by co-opting the old when it proved too powerful to destroy.
There is a common Christian complaint that crass materialism undermines our spirituality, but perhaps the complainants should remember that such materialism was used to spread the gospel in the first place. And, to ask Yeats’s famous question, what rough beast is slouching toward Bethlehem to be born? Look for a beast that offers wonders and, more importantly, material benefits. But whatever comes Wednesday will still remain Woden’s day and Thursday will forever belong to Thor. The pagan gods are with us still.
Bernard Cornwell was born in London and now lives in the United States. In addition to his hugely successful Sharpe novels, he is the author of the Starbuck Chronicles, the Warlord trilogy, the Grail Quest series, the Alfred series, and the Saxon Tales series. His newest novel is The Pagan Lord (Harper, January 7, 2014).